Austin Heller is a Senior Political Science Student at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. He was a former candidate for the Cobb County Board of Education and serves as Team Lead for KSU’s Civic Engagement Team. Austin managed Nick Miller’s campaign in Georgia and was the social media manager for Georgia State Representative Park Canon. Austin centers his work on equitable and empowering practices. In this abbreviated conversation with Dr. Weaver, he shares his opinions on white centering and its impact on retaining or attracting Gen Zers.
Weaver: How do you define white centering?
Heller: We see whiteness in every aspect from housing to education. It’s using white narratives to dominate the conversation and putting comfortability over revolution. You see it in education where we’re looking at history from the white or colonialist perspective. We’re not learning about the impact of certain political policies or actions from the past across the world. These ‘isms that we have so centered here are everywhere else across the globe due to our impact. White centering is not acknowledging that because it could be considered divisive.
The great replacement theory is a conspiracy theory. It’s fear mongering, realist world perspective that the white population is being replaced by a new electorate. Whether that’s through immigration, mixed race couples or more children of color being born at higher rates than white children. It’s just a way to incite fear, center white fragility, and fear amongst the collective conversation.
Most folks don’t even know that critical race theory was concocted in the 1970s by legal scholars. It shows how housing, the legal and court systems are all inequitable and have not favored, particularly Black Americans throughout history. Banning these types of conversations leads to the erasure of so many folks’ stories and histories.
Weaver: What is your why in doing the work you do?
Heller: I was raised in an army family. I saw service growing up. They serve differently than I serve, but we all have our place in society. We’re all just one piece of shattered glass but when you zoom out and we’re all put together like a mural. We’re all a mosaic put together, so everyone has their place. I got a jump into this work of equity and revolutionary conversations during the pandemic. I began my schooling as elementary education major. I wanted to teach kindergarten to bring inclusive conversations and show children that heroes can look different than them so that they are not going and developing into folks that are turning 18, 19, and first coming across someone that’s a darker shade than them at college. At that point, it’s hard to bring someone into the work. I decided during the pandemic, there was so much health inequity and national conversations about vaccine distribution. I can’t do that much work in the classroom if I don’t have the adequate money to do that. I switched over to political science, minoring in legal studies. My why is Dr. Dukes, Dante, and Bri. Our crew that we consider ourselves in Atlanta of knowing their family, not by blood, but by mission.
Weaver: How Gen Zers are reacting to how companies are DEI practices?
Heller: My friends who are interviewing are feeling out who their employers and team workers are going to be. Who is this team comprised of? Am I the only person that looks, sounds, believes, prays the way I do in this workplace? Will I have someone that I can connect to? The Gen Alpha are seeing people in places that they know they can get to now—like Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. We are expecting the workplace to reflect what America looks like. I’m looking for places that I want to work that’s not just DEI work, but D I J work–diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice work.
Weaver: Why is it important to add the “J” to the DEI?
Heller: Justice is important because justice is making sure that micro or macro aggression aren’t happening in the first place. DEI work is important, but without the “J” being a part of it, it’s just a conversation. We’re, implementing it through actual practices and patterns and cultures, and it takes years to establish culture that is inclusive and equitable. The “J” is arguably the most important part of the work.
Weaver: How do you leverage your own whiteness to engage other white people on inequities?
Heller: Sometimes it takes someone who looks similar for the message to be even able to get in the door. Privilege comes with it power. You must use your power in the way that is best suited for you. I will turn everything into a justice conversation. It could be about traffic, and I would say if we had better public transit, but they don’t want cities to connect suburbs because of racial tension and policies throughout history. Just because I’ve been doing this work doesn’t mean that I’m not going to commit racial harm either intentionally or unintentionally. Knowing that I’m still going to stumble, but that I’m committed to changing and to doing the work is how I get people to join in and have those types of conversations with me.
Weaver: What is the decentering whiteness?
Heller: Decentering whiteness is centering the voices of the community that you’re trying to advocate with and for. We should be amplifying like a megaphone. I’m here to be a megaphone for folks across all types of communities, whether it’s an LGBTQ community, whether it’s a Latinx community. I can use my voice as an amplifier, not as the message itself and centering Black artists. I talk to white folks about showing up for Black folks in America, the way that you show up for Black NBA. We have folks that love J. Cole or they love watching LeBron James play, but then when those same folks lives are being threatened by police or by societal injustices they are silent. I always ask people to keep that energy. Black folks shouldn’t have to be give you something, entertainment, music profits, for you to care about and advocate for them.
Weaver: What should people who are looking for employment think about before interviewing?
Heller: Asking questions that relates to your identity is important:
- How am I going to be supported during emergency situations?
- Will I be granted that time off for holidays that are not federally recognized or that will that become an issue?
- If I plan to have a child, how does that look and fit into my career here?
- What does the leadership team look like? Are there opportunities for me to grow into a leadership position?
- How does feedback work at a company or organization? How do I bring up a concern to you? And then how is it handled?
- How can my identity further the mission statement of this organization?
Weaver: What are the selling points needed to attract someone to join a company?
Heller: Asking how we can show up for you in your entirety. Making sure that I’m centering what you need and who you are. Generations before, color blindness was key to being inclusive but that denies huge parts of who people are–denying culture, history, and the political implications of who you are. A supervisor, interviewer, an executive at a company asking that question lets the worker know you’re seeing them.
Weaver: What is one thing I need to avoid doing or saying?
Heller: Our generations are noticing that there are toxic work environments where your quality of like or your evaluations are based on productivity: how much did you produce for us this week? You don’t build an enterprise without other folks. You need to make sure that you’re investing in folks that are here in the now and letting them know. I’m here for you as a person. I don’t want to rate you as doing a good job this week because you completed 50 tasks and then not tell employee B that they also did a good job because they only completed 25. That person may have had a grandmother that passed away due to a cancer fight that person may have just had a rough day. We want to make sure that we’re holding people accountable, but we also have to humanize folks.
Weaver: What do you think would be the most impactful way that an individual could address a person that’s white centering?
Heller: Calling people in versus calling them out. You can pull them in and speak to them if you’re a white employee recognizing a harmful act being perpetrated by another white employee to someone of color or a woman or any minority group in the workplace. I would also approach the employee that you’re worried or concerned for. Instead of speaking up for them ask how they need to be advocated for as well. Having that type of conversation with people is critical.